Old barns get new attention

As barns fade from the rural American landscape, efforts are being made to preserve them.

Andy Nelson/CSM/File
Rural icons: Barns in Iowa still stand, but many are disappearing.
Sarah More McCann
Rural icons: Barns in Wisconsin still stand, but many are disappearing.

The fieldstone barn started to crack in the 1990s, and when residents of Chase, Wis., (pop. 2,082) had the opportunity to collectively purchase and restore the 1903 building – one of only a handful of stone barns left in the state – they jumped at the opportunity.

The town obtained a loan from the local bank to buy the barn and lot for $150,000 in 2007, and since then has been searching for additional public and private money to help pay for some $465,000 worth of necessary repairs, says Kristin Kolkowski, who's active in the effort.

Far from unusual, the project represents a growing national trend to identify and preserve these rural icons.

Old barns are rapidly disappearing from the nation's landscape: As few as 2 million may be left, down from 6 million in the 1930s. And with every downed barn, bits of the nation's story are lost.

"Up until the 20th century, this was a nation of farmers," says Jim Lindberg, who heads Barn Again!, a project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Farms are at the core of our nation's identity, and the barn is the center of that identity."

Within the past 50 years, the amalgamation of land, the mechanization of farming, and an exodus of rural residents to cities left many barns unused, says Charles Leik, president of the National Barn Alliance, a preservationist group.

"In my area [Michigan], everyone used to keep dairy cows. Now there aren't any. Everyone is 'green' farming: corn, soybeans. Barns became largely superfluous," he says.

After decades of neglect, the roofs, walls, and floors of old barns start to go.

Although Mr. Lindberg says updating barns can cost half of the $40,000 to $50,000 it could take to build a new barn, other factors discourage owners from repairs. Not realizing that the barns can be adapted for small-scale farming is one. Another is not knowing that grants may be available to help.

Recently, a market for antique lumber has become a factor in barn destruction. When a developer recently leveled 200 buildings throughout the Midwest, much of the wood was sold for flooring, says Charles Law, a University of Wisconsin Extension expert in rural land preservation.

"When you have a 200-year-old board like chestnut, it's great for the homeowner, but you've lost the barn," Mr. Leik of the Barn Alliance says.

The connections Americans have to barns are often emotional, but the case that preservationists make for saving the old structures is based on their unique blend of architectural elements and rural history – demonstrating the influence of immigrants to the United States as well as American agricultural developments.

"In Wisconsin, the barn that is the most prevalent is the dairy barn," says Dr. Law. "But the breadth and array of barn architecture and characteristics you find ... are tied so deeply to different groups."

In the Midwest, German immigrants built barns such as the Chase stone barn. In New England, the first barns were English threshing barns. Antecedents of a popular type of Pennsylvania barn were found in Europe's Rhine Valley.

Barn construction also "reflects the westward movement of the population," says Sally Hatcher, president of the Kansas Barn Alliance. "By the time the settlement reached here ... you see prairie-style barns made to store huge amounts of hay."

In addition to these influences, Leik says, barn architecture most prominently offers a window into farming practices. Bank barns, built into a hill, have both high and low entrances for livestock and hay. The threshing barn was typically one level with bays – the middle of the barn was reserved for threshing and the bays were used for hay or livestock.

The first step in saving these living history books is documenting the number of old barns. For the first time, the US Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture asked if a farm contains a barn built before 1960.

States are also conducting their own surveys. The Connecticut Trust has documented some 1,800 barns. The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation received a grant from the National Park Service to produce a barn census, a comprehensive effort that may become a national model, says Nancy Boone, deputy state historic preservation officer.

Vermont was also the first state to establish a barn grant program. Since 1991, it has appropriated between $150,000 and $200,000 a year for the effort and saved about 200 barns. Other states have followed its example.

There's also a federal rehabilitation tax credit, and Lindberg of Barn Again! reports that more than half the states have their own tax credits, although often the structure has to be listed on the state or national Register of Historic Places. But "barns are underrepresented [on lists]," says Ms. Hatcher. "Rural assets have not garnered the attention of grand Victorian homes."

Convincing owners that barns can still be used for agriculture often spurs preservation, Hatcher says. A Leavenworth, Kan., farmer converted cow stalls to cement tanks where he raises tilapia. A filtration system collects nutrients from the fish water to hydroponically grow peppers and basil. An old dairy barn in Phillips, Kan., is now home to alpacas. (The animals' hair is harvested for wool.)

Preservationists hope that Americans' affection for barns will also be a factor in the effort to save these bits of rural history. Touching the stone barn in Chase helped spur Ms. Kolkowski – the town's treasurer at the time – to motivate other residents to save the barn.

When "I got up close and found where the stones came from and what it took to build the barn," she says she realized "it's an extraordinary, unique structure. ... and it's still standing, solid, today. It's special."

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